Saturday, April 6, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.14: Elia Kazan's Wild River


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 86/A-

“Everyone has their reasons”. So goes the famous quote from Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game, a line Elia Kazan had expressed fondness of. Kazan had his own chance to explore this idea with Wild River, a deeply personal project that nonetheless failed to catch on with audiences. But that humanity and empathy that ran throughout Kazan’s best work shines brightly in Wild River, one of the director’s most moving films.

1933: the Tennessee Valley Authority has to clear the land about to be flooded by the new dam, but stubborn matriarch Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) refuses to move from her tiny island. The TVA sends Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) to convince Garth to leave. Glover pleads with Garth, stressing that she and the people she looks after will die if they do not leave, but he has little success. To complicate matters, Glover has fallen for Garth’s widowed granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick), and his attempts to find jobs for the black men on Garth’s island is met with opposition by a group of white supremacists led by the vicious Hank Bailey (Albert Salmi).

Like Kazan’s earlier triumph East of Eden, Wild River was shot in gorgeous, gorgeous CinemaScope, and Kazan uses the bigger picture to its fullest advantage. There’s an unmistakable mournful air to the film, much of which comes from the poverty around the small Tennessee town and on the island, where the relatively self-sufficient Garth clan doesn’t even work for wages. The whole town feels somewhat faded and dying, as if it were connected to Garth’s crumbling house. Better yet, Kazan captures the easy, patient feel of the southern town, particularly whenever Clift has to cross the river on a small, slow ferry. Nothing’s hurried down there, and it’s perfect contrast to how serious and pressing the concerns about the river should be.

Of course, much of that feeling also comes from Van Fleet in a performance that tops her Oscar-winning work in East of Eden. Only 45 but looking every bit of Garth’s eighty-something years, Van Fleet’s mixture of shakiness and stubbornness is perfect. One of the film’s best moments shows her lecturing her people about how much the government wants to take away what’s theirs, followed by a speech to Glover about how she intends to die on her land. Kazan uses a low shot as she travels through a cemetery, as if she’s being followed by the spirits of her ancestors, who wait for her to join them. She’s an intelligent woman, and one whose sentimental attachment to her land is understandable considering her late husband’s own implied struggles over it. The way Kazan and Van Fleet handle her character is wonderful- she’s wrong, and her actions could lead to disaster, but she’s also deeply empathetic.

Remick joins Julie Harris and Eva Marie Saint as one of Kazan’s classic blondes, earthy and relatable but still somewhat ethereal, dressed in pure white but still sexual. Remick’s Carol is the perfect mediator between Glover and Garth, someone who loves both dearly and wants both her grandmother’s happiness and her own happiness with Glover. Remick plays the character with a disarming vulnerability and sense of inner conflict. She’s perhaps the most sensible person in the film, but she’s also the most tormented. Her every love scene with Clift is filled with conflict: passion met with pain, overflowing emotion and sexual desire met with reluctance and worry.

At this point in his career, Clift was frequently in shambles. Disfigured from a bad car accident years ago, now struggling with addictions to pills and alcohol, he was more than a little troubled. His best late period performances (see also: Judgment at Nuremberg, The Misfits) exploit that, and Wild River is no exception. Gone is the impossibly good looking man from A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity, replaced by a still handsome but cracked, reticent man who looks completely out of place compared to everyone else. An early shot of him framed outside of Garth’s home recalls the ending to John Ford’s The Searchers- this is a home, but it’s not his home, and his officious manners don’t fit to well among the plainer folks. Later, when Glover makes a drunken plea to Garth to vacate, Clift shows the falling apart at the seams quality that makes so much of his later work both fascinating and difficult to watch. He’s desperate, and lord knows what could happen if he doesn’t get what he needs.

Wild River is slightly less confident when dealing with issues of race, if only because the material feels like a slight distraction from the powerful story in the center. That doesn’t make it weak material in and of itself, however, and Kazan gets some powerful moments out of Glover’s dealings with a southern town’s racist attitudes.  The town’s mayor isn’t as virulent as some of the others, but he is rather matter of fact when he tells Glover that “we can’t use colored folks, or the whites would quit” when talking about working on the riverside (Glover’s response: “For a minute, there, I forgot where I was”). When Glover shakes things up by paying black men the same as white men, he’s met first with casual intimidation by a businessman who brings along a rather grave looking undertaker who overwhelms the frame.

But the real tension of these sections comes with Bailey, played with nasty good ol’ boy aplomb by Salmi. The man captures the same sense of white entitlement that Karl Malden showed in Baby Doll, but he’s far less benign. Kazan builds great tension in a scene where Salmi shows up in Glover’s apartment, using a high shot in the hallway and at the stairs as Glover is warned that there’s someone in his room. His casual creepiness as he explains how he beat one of his black workers for joining the TVA is absolutely perfect, and a later assault on Remick’s home is even better as he shows he’s not afraid to fight anyone, even a woman, who’s on Glover’s side. With a man like this on land, it’s no wonder most of the black characters in the film are so loyal to Garth.

Still, the race material can’t compare to the central tale of rugged American individualism fighting a government that’s only trying to help. Glover’s early admission that he admires Garth is true, but still, “we’ve got get her the hell outta there”. Kazan handles this material with a clear understanding of Garth’s viewpoint- if the government claimed he was going to take what your property whether or not you wanted to sell it, how would you react? Her preaching against FDR is understandable. It’s also completely wrong, playing like a version of Lonesome Rhodes’ anti-government screeds from A Face in the Crowd that’s filled with good intentions rather than malice.

And still, even as Glover does the right thing by forcing her off the island, it leaves a clear wound in her pride in spirit. Early in the film, Glover earnestly tells Garth that “Sometimes we can’t remain true to our beliefs without hurting a lot of people”. It proves true, but for the opposite reason, and as soon as Garth’s land is taken away, her trees chopped down, her broken down old home burned, any life left in here leaves, first metaphorically, then literally. And while Kazan agrees that it was necessary and gives a hopeful ending to Glover and Carol, there’s still a mournful air to the whole affair. Sometimes it’s hard to do good when trying to do what’s right.

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